By Richard McComb
The UK's Bocuse D'Or team flies to Stockholm at the weekend (3 May), buoyed by a spirit of optimism.
Adam Bennett (pictured) and commis chef Josh Allen have completed their training regime at University College Birmingham, honing their techniques and the composition of their spectacular dishes during the countdown to the European qualifier.
The duo, coached by Idris Caldora, a UK Bocuse D'Or veteran, held their final five-and-a-half hour run through in a specially-built competition kitchen at University College Birmingham on Wednesday (30 April).
The meat platter, comprising ham on the bone and pigs' trotters, and the individually plated fish course, featuring coley, Belon oysters and blue mussels, both look and taste highly accomplished. The composition of the dishes will not be revealed until the grand cook-off, which takes place during the GastroNord at Stockholm International Fairs.
It is the second time Bennett, head chef at Andreas Antona's the Cross in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, has represented the UK. He has been designing and practising his meat platter with pork sourced from the Swedish farm that will supply the competition in Stockholm. However, he has not yet cooked with either Swedish coley or the oysters the chefs will be given and is flying to Stockholm early to work with the produce and assess any peculiarities.
Bennett said: "When we first entered the competition in 2012, I was determined that we would make the most of the experience and enjoy ourselves. The same is true this time round."
Changes to the team structure, introduced by Bennett, have been hugely beneficial. The chef has appointed an apprentice chef, which has given him "head space and time to think." Matt Nicholls, 19, studying an NVQ level 3 in professional cookery at UCB, has been on duty for the set up and run through of every session, ensuring all the equipment and ingredients have been in place, saving the chefs several hours each day.
Bennett said: "It means our heads are a lot clearer to concentrate, which is what the Scandinavians and teams like that have been doing for years. The first time we did the European qualifier, the Finnish team had two students helping them. That's where I got the idea from."
Bennett, formerly head chef at Michelin-starred Simpsons in Birmingham, said his new role at the Cross meant it would have been impossible to prepare without the help of an apprentice. He also paid tribute to the support provided by UCB and its vice-chancellor Professor Ray Linforth.
Commis chef Allen (pictured below), 21, is a second-year Culinary Arts Management student at the university and worked under Bennett at Simpsons. Under the chef's guidance, he went on work placement to the three Michelin-star Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, France.
Allen was responsible for producing the hot and cold canapés at the restaurant, which he said was great preparation for his role as Bocuse D'Or commis, where he is heavily involved in the complex garnishes.
Allen said: "I was really chuffed to be asked to be commis. It takes over your life doing the Bocuse D'Or. You lie in bed and think about it. Every time you practise, you want to get better and faster at it."
Bennett remains a self-deprecating professional but the facts are these: a typical day involves dropping daughter Asha at school in Coventry, driving to Birmingham for 9.30am; preparing, practising and evaluating for the Bocuse D'Or until 5.30pm, then heading to the Cross for dinner service, leaving for home around midnight. "It's a glamorous industry we work in," he said with a wry smile.
Bennett said preparations for the contest were "streets ahead" of 2012-13. He said: "The food has developed since Lyon. I think it is a better set of dishes than we did in the final. There's another layer to it."
However, the chef is far from complacent, adding: "It doesn't matter how good your dishes are: if you mess something up, it is messed up. You can be the best cook in the competition on all your practices, but if you mess it up on the day it doesn't count for a thing."
Coach Caldora (pictured below with Bennett) represented the UK in the Bocuse D'Or in 1996. He was working at the then Churchill Inter-Continental in Portman Square and said comparing the competition then and now was like "chalk and cheese."
"I had to raise the money to get to France. My commis didn't have a suit. I had to arrange the freight and get the equipment over," said Caldora.
The style of cooking and the techniques have changed dramatically. Caldora said: "The finish is a lot cleaner now and there is more precision. It is how food has developed. If you take your top restaurants, they are working at a very high level and that precision is emulated in what Adam is doing. The whole thing has evolved."
Bennett competes on Thursday 8 May, the second day of the qualifier, and has been drawn between Finland and Switzerland in the adjacent competition kitchens. The results will be announced later that afternoon.